Let’s take a moment and remember a true master craftsman. Jonathan Demme died today at 73.
Though Demme won an Oscar in 1992 for The Silence of the Lambs, his was a career that passed without the praise and adulation that might have been expected given his talents. He isn’t put in a conversation alongside, say, Quentin Tarantino or even Steven Soderbergh, whose oddball career has drawn late praise for its sheer variety.
Demme spent his whole career doing what the picture demanded of him, nothing more and nothing less. His career began with Caged Heat, a movie starring Juanita Brown about a group of women prisoners who band together to fight their way out against cruel masters. After that, he directed Crazy Mama, a film that focuses on three women on a crime spree stretching from California to Arkansas. He returned to Arkansas to shoot Fighting Mad, starring Peter Fonda as a farmer fighting against corrupt real estate developers. All three movies have in common that they’re focused on the downtrodden fighting back against the system that oppressed them, but they could hardly be more different in tone and style.
Demme’s real bravura stretch was 1991–1993, when he released The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, the latter a Tom Hanks-starring vehicle about a lawyer fighting against a discrimination lawsuit as he battles HIV. The two films are studies in stark contrasts.
Lambs showcases Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and her intense chemistry with Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). The way he shoots their dialog is subtle, starting over both their shoulders before moving to full-frame closeups. But the real coup de grace is when the camera follows Lecter’s eyes up to take in the air holes dotting the partition between them. In that moment, we the audience become aware of the screen and the permeability of the difference between us and Lecter. Demme doesn’t break the fourth wall; he just shows you a crack, and suddenly we lose our identification of ourselves as an audience and feel: There is a murderer right behind the glass, he’s sniffing us and there are holes in the barrier between us and him.
The scene in which Buffalo Bill stalks Starling throughout his murder house returns to the first-person POV in a way that could seem cheesy, but we’ve been primed for identification as the killer. Demme lets us into that first-person world, descending, as does Starling, to the brink of madness before flipping on the lights.
Then, he directed a drama about Tom Hanks slowly dying of the then-incurable AIDS. I intentionally contrast the two because they are consecutive films that highlight Demme’s stylistic flexibility. Philadelphia doesn’t have the same level of, like, murder or brutality in it, but that doesn’t mean Demme demured as a filmmaker. The same exact type of filmmaking he uses in that Lecter scene is on display in this early scene between Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in a law library.
Demme follows each character’s line of sight, triangulating the relationship between Washington, Hanks and the piece of paper between them. The moment when Washington won’t even take the paper from Hanks’ hands is remarkable as an encapsulation of the fear that exists between them. Then Demme photographs the scene from the paper’s perspective. We don’t even notice the shift unless we realize he’s been cutting on each character’s eyes the whole time. In that moment, we see both people as the law sees them: larger than life, about to determine major precedent. He was doing what the scene demanded but because the performances didn’t involve Anthony Hopkins sniffing Jodie Foster, we notice it a great deal less.
I say all this to emphasize that even in Demme’s quieter work, he was no less a titan of serving the movie, not himself. He was never one to do a series of swooping, Michael Bay-style camera moves. Unless, that is, the scene demanded it (e.g. the nightmarish disembowelled-cop reveal in Lambs). He was a master of the minor moments that make movies work.
A legend died today. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.